We know a good deal about medieval saints (and non-saints) who came from upper-class families. Godric of Finchale is one of those rare men of humble origin about whose varied career a good deal is known. It took a long time for him to find his true calling. Many of us are late bloomers, and it is consoling to know of a saint who was a peddler, a pilgrim, a sailor, a ship’s captain, a bailiff, and a sacristan before he discovered that God wanted him to be a hermit.
Godric was born in Norfolk, England, of Anglo-Saxon peasant stock. Normally he would have stuck to small farming. Instead, he chose to be a travelling peddler. Apparently he had gifts as a bargainer. In 1089 he made his first pilgrimage to Rome. (There was always this piety in his makeup.) On returning to England, however, he decided to expand his commercial efforts. Now he went to sea, trading in Scotland, Flanders and Denmark. He was so successful that he bought a share in two ships, becoming a captain of one of them. In 1101 he went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, presumably in his own ship. On the return trip he visited the shrine of St. James at Compostela in Spain. Back in England he took a job as a bailiff (property manager), but before long he was again a pilgrim to Rome and Saint-Gilles in southern France. He made yet a third pilgrimage to the Eternal City, this time with his aged mother as companion. It is a fair guess that he got his piety from this dauntless old lady, who is said to have made the journey barefoot!
After that Roman pilgrimage, Godric finally gave signs of having made up his mind – partially, at least. He sold all his goods and began to experiment with a hermit’s life in a forest in northern England. To better learn the eremitical ropes, he returned to the Holy Land, spent some time with other hermits in the desert of St. John the Baptist, and worked for a while in the crusader hospital in Jerusalem. Back in England, he became a peddler again for a while. Then he went to Durham, was engaged as sacristan of a local church, and attended school with the choirboys at St. Mary-le-Bow. Finally he settled down for good in the woods of Finchale on the River Wear. He was by then over 40.
The life of a solitary is pretty drastic. St. Godric made it even more so, doing penance for the sins of his youth. He had no spiritual guidance at first. That was remedied when Roger, the prior of the monastery at nearby Durham, gave him a rule of life to follow.
The routine was typically eremitical. Long prayers of the liturgy were followed by silent contemplation of the mysteries of faith, all carried on in penitential austerity. Loneliness itself had its challenges: not from the wild beasts of the forest, which he quickly befriended, but from diabolical manifestations; grave illnesses; a near-drowning; and even being beaten up by Scottish soldiers who believed he had a hidden treasure. Godric stuck to his rule nevertheless. Gradually he won the respect of neighboring villagers and monks, and even received a letter of encouragement from Pope Alexander III.
How did the Hermit of Finchale appear to those who received permission to speak with him? A contemporary writer noted that he was “strong and agile, and in spite of his small stature his appearance was very venerable. He had a broad forehead, sparkling grey eyes, and bushy eyebrows that almost met. His face was oval, his nose long, his beard thick. ” Visitors found him a good listener, always serious, and sympathetic to those in trouble. Among his charismatic gifts were prophecy and the knowledge of distant happenings.
St. Godric also became noted as a writer of hymns. His lyrics are among the oldest to employ rhyme and measure rather than the alliteration characteristic of Anglo-Saxon verse. The tunes to which he set the poems were simple ones, taught him, he said, in various visions. Four of these melodies and texts have been preserved in the British Museum and were recorded in 1965.
Stricken with a long illness at the end of threescore years in his little hermit’s cell, Godric died May 11, 1170. His tomb then became a shrine at which many miracles of healing were performed, especially on women. Like many ancient saints, Godric was never formally canonized, but his cult has continued at Finchale, at Durham, and among the Cistercian monks.
Men and women called belatedly to the religious life should find in St. Godric of Finchale a sympathetic patron. Before he finally settled down, he, too, had been around!
–Father Robert F. McNamara